More than high school blues

More than a quarter of high school students have experienced signs of clinical depression and other psychiatric conditions, but most are not accessing support from mental health professionals, a UNSW led survey reveals.

The survey, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease was conducted in response to community concerns about a number of Sydney’s upper North Shore students committing suicide in previous years.

The results offer a concerning insight into the lack of mental health support adolescents are accessing, with only 20 to 25 per cent of students with a suggested psychiatric condition saying they had sought help from a general practitioner or a mental health professional.

The anonymous survey was led by UNSW Scientia Psychiatry Professor and Black Dog Institute Founder Gordon Parker AO.  In it, over 1500 year 11 and 12 Sydney private school students were asked questions relating to mood and anxiety in recent periods and over their lifetime, and details about their history of self-harm behaviours, thoughts of suicide and history of being bullied were also collected.

“There is, predictably, considerable concern about the risk of suicide in adolescents,” professor parker said.

“Based on the survey answers, we wanted to assess whether there were certain psychiatric conditions that put students at an increased risk of suicide and self-harm.”

The survey was carried out with the consent of parents, school counsellors and principals. The questions were based on a set of guidelines used by psychiatrists and mental health professionals for psychiatric diagnoses, including detailed criteria for major depressive disorder, social anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, while eating disorders were also assessed.

“We quantified that 26.8 per cent of students met the criteria for major (clinical) depression, 21.5 per cent for social anxiety disorders, and 1.0 per cent for a bipolar disorder,” Professor Parker said.

“We also found that thoughts of suicide and previous self-harm were distinctly highest in those with a melancholic depression or bipolar disorder, in comparison to students with the other disorders or no condition at all.”

Among students who had experienced major (clinical) depression, 29 per cent had a history of self-harm and 59 per cent had felt suicidal over their lifetime. Of those with a melancholic depression, 50 per cent had self-harmed and 60 per cent had felt suicidal. Among students with responses that fit the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, 57 per cent had self-harmed and 90 per cent had felt suicidal.

“The study also highlights the grave extent to which bullying occurs and the effects of such vicious personal attacks on vulnerable young people experiencing depression,” Professor Parker says.

“They are therefore unlikely to be aware of their condition and its treatability, and remain at severe risk,” he says.

In Australia, a 2017 report, independent of this study, identified suicide as the leading cause of death among the 15-17 year age group in NSW in 2015.


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